Saturday, November 14, 2009

My Hopes for Glee

I have such a mixed bag of feelings about the TV show Glee... My two older kids have always been vocal music-theater-show choir folks, or La-La's as they are called 'round here (the instrumental musicians are called Band-o's, fyi.) They love the show. They love the music and the mash-ups (where they blend 2 unrelated songs & styles into one performance), they love the dance and they LOVE the drama.

I have gotten into watching it with them. The music and dancing are great and the stories have led to lots of conversation.

This week Glee put the whole cast in wheelchairs and introduced two characters with Down syndrome... While the ideas of team-building and of walking a mile in someone else's moccasins aren't totally awful, I had my issues. Naturally!

First, disability simulation exercises usually lead to more pity than understanding (you can tell by the things people say when they are over--more about relief and feeling bad for people, rather than about empathy and feeling more like people with disabilities.) Secondly, having seen professional wheelchair dancers, the performance was kind of one-dimensional...

My daughter saw the show before the rest of us and her concern about wheelchair issues took a definite back seat to her anxiety about what was going to happen between the cheerleading coach and the young teen with Down syndrome.

My son, the actor and I have been discussing whether an actor who can walk should portray a wheelchair-user. He points out that acting is all about portraying people you aren't... He pointed out that he's played a farmer, a skeleton, a soldier, a student, a drunken businessman, and several variations of old men, and some really disturbing evil characters. He's only played a teenager once and that was a boy from the 1940's.

We have talked about blackface, about the percentages of disability in the real world vs. that on TV. And the percentages of average-looking people in the world vs. those portrayed by Hollywood...

As I say the conversation has been interesting. And unresolved... but that's how discussions with teens are!

Interestingly my blog-friends who use wheelchairs hated the show (see here) the bloggers who have kids with Down syndrome liked it (see here and here.) As Wheelchair Dancer points out, a consistent disability message is hard to find, and heirarchical thinking is often accepted--or even promoted--within the disability community itself.

I myself think the show has potential for disability acceptance. They are willing to 'go there' with tough subjects (as evidenced by the ongoing story about the gay student and his father... and all the teen trouble that's rampant, etc) and they don't lose their sense of humor or style as they do it... Kids LIKE the show!

IF they could come to understand that they don't have the whole picture of disability and look outside themselves for info, I think they could be awesome. Some say it's a big IF... we shall see.

To start with:

*They could have the teen girl with Down syndrome pay back the friend that bought her a cupcake--or better yet, lend her some $$. She should be a contributor, not just a recipient.

*They could introduce the kids to some REAL dancers who use wheelchairs.

*Lots could happen with the teen with Down syndrome... and with the big sister (though even if she must live in a nursing home she should still be and about, unless she's sick...) They also need to watch the 'childlike' stereotype.

*They would need to stop the remarks about "Never being able to get up... Never not be disabled... etc..." Gag me. Pity--for self or others--is not a viable life-strategy.

*They could also play up the realizations that many of the kids voiced that using a wheelchair lowered their status. Should it?? Um... no... but it does. That could be explored.

*There is lots of story potential about the difference between accommodation and unfair advantage. It is tricky stuff, but they worked that in with their "Diva-Off," I think they could handle it... IF they got some real input from the disability community.

A lot of this could be woven in with the other story-lines... And finally...

*How's about a Glee-ADAPT mashup??? :)

Just my thoughts!


Anonymous said...

I like that your post was more questions than answers! I too posted about this episode. I guess it's hard to expect accurate characterizations of people with disabilities when no one else is accurately portrayed. TV is all about evocation and stimulation around glamorized people it seems. I like it when it engenders lots of great conversation!

Terri said...

I agree, Starlife, I think they could be more nuanced in their disability understanding (as they are with other storylines), but the conversations are priceless.

Rob said...

I also posted on this episode at I take your son's point, but wrote, "Watching McHale do tricks in a wheelchair raises a question that goes beyond role playing or star power. Certainly, some people with disabilities can do those maneuvers, but there just seemed to be a hint of leaving the disability behind when it was time to perform. It's disingenuous and potentially sends a poor message to the show's teenage target audience that someone with a disability can just shake it off when necessary. To be fair, the episode addressed that very issue later."

Great blog!

Cate said...

I was hoping that this episode was just an introduction to the characters with Down syndrome, and maybe they'll do more with them later. The nursing home did make me really sad.

I didn't realize there were professional wheelchair dancers. Very cool! Although I'm not sure it's fair to compare a high school kid to a professional anything. I'd expect most teenage boys to be not-great dancers.

as for "the whole picture of disability", where would they get that? Not that they shouldn't be looking for advice from knowledgeable people, but I don't buy the idea that there's one true viewpoint.

Anyway. I agree, it has potential. And it's better than most of the other stuff on TV.

Terri said...

Thanks, Rob and Cate!

I think that they do plan to have the characters with Down syndrome appear again in December, and someone said next year as well.

My son is still chewing on the whole thing. He is a disability ally (is that spelled right?) But this is a new area for thought.

I think the message in disability things matter more because representation is so rare. And since the disabling effects of disability are mostly caused by the barriers our clueless society erects, giving society some real info is important.

I don't think their producers knew there are professional w/c dancers either (their kids are pretty professional in other forms of dance--I wouldn't expect them to learn that in rehearsal, but knowing it exists would inform them differently, I think.)

Another example where more understanding would make things more real was the job scene. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is at 75% regardless of the condition of the economy... that a wheelchair would be an advantage in getting a job is pretty far off the mark.

I think the show reaches teens, and I do hope they will build their background info (the way they have with the LGBT thread.) I hope the disability community can form an alliance with them to bring more disability understanding to their totally engaging show.

Thanks guys!